Engleby
by Sebastian Faulks |

CRITIC'S CHOICE

REVIEWED BY VICK BOUGHTON

FICTION

Mike Engleby is one creepy guy. A scholarship student in the early 1970s at a prestigious British university (one he coyly refuses to name, Cambridge), he has but one friend there, drinks too much and just as often pops heavy-duty tranquilizers. For spending money he steals cash from fellow students or sells them marijuana and hashish. His studies interest him, but his great passion is Jennifer Arkland, a pretty student who emphatically does not return his affections. (He has stolen her diary, so he knows this for a fact.) When Jennifer goes missing, the police suspect that Mike might know something about her disappearance. Because he has no recollection of days, even weeks, of his life, Mike wonders too: Could he know more than he recalls? It's a question that will plague him for nearly 15 years, during which he becomes a stellar journalist. Faulks, a popular British writer whose earlier work includes the haunting Birdsong and Human Traces, gives his antihero considerable appeal by letting him tell his own story in an entertaining, diarylike format. Engleby is clever and bitingly funny, and for a self-involved loser, awfully good company.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
by Junot Díaz |

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REVIEWED BY JONATHAN DURBIN

FICTION

Oscar de León is a fat, lovelorn ultranerd who dreams of committing heroic deeds; he would like, for instance, to save one of his teenage crushes from her abusive boyfriend. Instead he appears doomed to a decidedly meek existence of perpetual virginity, living with his Dominican family in New Jersey. Called "Wao" by neighborhood Dominican kids who think he resembles Oscar Wilde, Oscar accepts the nickname, despite its implied insult; in fact, he wants to be a writer, the Dominican Stephen King, but getting published seems an impossibility. As his family grows increasingly dysfunctional—his sister runs away from home to escape their mother—he contemplates suicide. Narrated collectively by Oscar's overbearing mother, his brilliant sister and her philandering boyfriend, Díaz's debut novel is comedic, joyous and depressing all at once. It is also a beautiful example of the immigrant's caught-between-two-worlds genre. An outsider both in New Jersey and the Dominican Republic, Oscar tries fecklessly to escape his family's reach. But as sister Lola wisely tells him, "The only way out is in."

Gifted
by Nikita Lalwani |

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FICTION

Cursed is more like it. After a teacher discovers 5-year-old Rumi Vasi's exceptional math talents, the British girl's life becomes, at her stern Indian-born father's insistence, a series of drills and mock exams until she enters the United Kingdom's Oxford University at age 15 as, she wistfully observes, "a gifted weirdo." As the protagonist of this engaging first novel, Rumi is entertaining and likeable even at her angriest and most confused. And despite her cloistered life, she is also wise, knowing that her early start in college succeeded only in robbing her of her youth.